PARIS — French President Nicolas Sarkozy failed to deliver a knockout blow against leftist front-runner Francois Hollande in their only head-to-head debate in France's presidential campaign, the last major hurdle just four days before Sunday's election finale.
Hollande – an understated man whom many expected to wither under Sarkozy's sharp attacks – stood his ground, surprising some observers and even himself. But Wednesday's much-awaited TV debate produced no outright winner, and appears unlikely to shake up the campaign.
The debate had shaped up as Sarkozy's last stand and last chance to draw blood against Hollande, and it quickly turned into a verbal slugfest that broke little new ground on substance but exposed big differences in style.
Sarkozy, an America-friendly conservative who has linked up with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to try to revive Europe's finances and economic prospects, came out slugging and sought to cast himself as the best man to keep France both decisive and competitive.
The incumbent president assailed Hollande's plans to raise taxes and boost spending – repeatedly accusing him of lying.
"The job of president isn't a normal job and the situation we're in isn't normal," snapped Sarkozy, riffing off of the Socialist Hollande's promise to bring a "normal" presidency compared to the incumbent's high-energy tenure. "Your normalcy isn't up to the stakes."
But for Hollande, the stakes boiled down to depicting presidential demeanor, and showing that he could hold his own against Sarkozy – a longtime political nemesis whom he has faced in TV debates dating to the 1990s.
"Hollande held up well," political scientist and former pollster Stephane Rozes told France-3 TV, adding that he doesn't think the debate will "shake things up" ahead of Sunday's vote.
Hollande said on France-3 television afterward that he showed voters "what I was capable of." But he acknowledged, "I don't think this is a debate ... that could bring out new voters."
The campaign has largely focused on domestic issues such as the weak economy, immigration, and integration of French Muslims. Yet the outcome is considered crucial to the rest of Europe as well because France is a major economic engine at a time when the eurozone is trying to climb out of a debt crisis.
Sarkozy says France needs to do more to cut spending and high state debt, while Hollande backs government-funded stimulus programs. Both have pushed for similar approaches for the rest of the continent, too.
The two debaters quibbled over statistics; they scoffed sarcastically or spoke over each other, pointed fingers and raised their voices. Their debates came across at times as wonkish, esoteric or nitpicky.
"It's a lie! It's a lie!" Sarkozy insisted in one heated exchange on economic policies. The Socialist contender, meanwhile, forcefully denied some of Sarkozy's claims about his intentions, insisting, "I never said that."
Hollande accused Sarkozy of appointing cronies to government posts, and the president shot back, calling his rival "a little slanderer" and noting he had named some ministers from the political left in his first Cabinet.
A high point came as Hollande teed off on a presenter's question about what kind of president he'd be. He tipped back in his chair, folded his arms, and launched into a litany of points starting with the phrase: "As president of the Republic, I ..." on issues like the independence of judges, his plan to defer much policy-making to the prime minister or energy policy.
"You've just gave us a nice speech – we got teary-eyed," retorted Sarkozy, trying to break down some of Hollande's points. "Your bit about independence of judges is a joke."
Hollande repeatedly using one of his campaign catchwords: like "unity" and "change" to stress the contrast between him and the divisive Sarkozy. Pollsters say the incumbent turned off a lot of voters early in his five-year term with his brash personal style. A stagnant economy made those troubles worse.
Sarkozy said he's being unfairly blamed for France's economic problems after years of crisis, and insisted he's not "the only guilty one."
"Mr. Sarkozy, you would have a hard time passing for a victim," replied Hollande. "It's never your fault. You always have a scapegoat. 'It's not me, it's the crisis that hit me.'"
Sarkozy said Hollande's economic plans would send France's debt through the roof and hurt the rest of Europe. The Socialist repeated his line that an euro-zone austerity package needs growth-minded policies, too.
Sarkozy stressed, again and again, Hollande's inexperience, and suggested the Socialist would not be able to handle Europe's debt crisis.
"We avoided the disappearance of Greece, that wasn't so easy. ... I'm not sure, Mr. Hollande, that you would have done much better."
Hollande fired back: "Europe isn't out of the woods. It is today confronted with a possible resurgence of the crisis with a generalized austerity, and I don't want that."
Hollande further criticized tax reforms under Sarkozy seen by leftists as too friendly to the rich. Sarkozy countered, "Saying that we offered gifts to the rich ... is slander. It's a lie."
At this, Hollande laughed.
Both the Socialists and conservatives have sought ways to lure voters who backed Marine Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigrant National Front party who won a stunning 18 percent of the first-round vote.
Sarkozy denounced those who compared him to France's Nazi collaborators because of his tough campaign rhetoric on immigrants.
"Borders are not a bad word," Sarkozy said about his calls to limit the number of immigrants France takes in.
Hollande, meanwhile, took a similar position to Sarkozy when it came to special treatment for France's large Muslim community.
He said he would not allow separate menus in public cafeterias or separate hours in swimming pools for men and women to satisfy Muslims' demands, and also said he would firmly support France's ban on the face-covering Islamic veils.
Sarkozy took a predator pose from the outset, leaning forward on the desk through much of the debate. Hollande frequently leaned back in his chair, raising his voice less often, and at one point even appeared to yawn.
Sarkozy's assertive posture, in another setting, could be seen as a good thing for a debate. But one of the things his critics dislike most about him is a personality seen as too aggressive, so it may not work in his favor.
The debate was preceded by the kind of dramatic build-up normally reserved for a heavyweight boxing championship, even though experts say past debates have never swung a French election, regardless of who comes off better in the televised showdown.
Sylvie Corbet, Thibault Leroux and Cecile Brisson in Paris contributed to this report.